Friday, September 14, 2012

Snapshot: Scandinavia, Part I; Helsinki to St. Petersburg

Since Vikings pillaged Northern Europe in the eighth century, scribes have gushed about the majesty of the region south of the Arctic Circle. Having finally experienced it for myself this summer, I now understand why Scandinavia's wild landscapes, dramatic fjords, Medieval towns and urban style have inspired awe through the ages.

Throw in fresh fish from the Baltic and Norwegian Seas, English-speaking locals and myriad transportation options, and this epic expanse of glaciers, forests, lakes and volcanoes became a seductive siren call for me.
View from the Flam Railway: sheer walls of stone drip into fjord-side villages

After hosting 50+ couchsurfers from around the globe over nine months, I yearned to became a traveler again, to exit my comfort zone, invite uncertainty in and head for cities with unfamiliar currencies, cultures and cuisines. Sure, I'd enjoyed Swedish smorgasbord before―even dined at legendary Gustav Anders when it was a rare culinary jewel in South Coast Plaza Village. But I'd never sampled reindeer meat (yup, they eat Rudolph in Scandinavia), rare gravlax, Swedish-style herring and cinnamon buns served warm from the oven by a native Swede.
When a craving for reindeer meatballs hits, head for Helsinki Harbor.

I'd never handled rubles, much less experienced officious Russian bureaucracy first-hand or heard of neighboring Tallinn―a Medieval gem that's both a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most rockin' little village in Eastern Europe. I never dreamed Norwegian forests and fjords could be more magnificent than picture postcards depict until I witnessed them on a Norway in a Nutshell adventure.

First stop: Helsinki
Couchsurfer Johannes invited me to stay with him in his central Helsinki apartment. I showed him how to set sugar soaked in Absinthe on fire and eat it over ice cream. He showed me how to feel comfortable in a clothing-optional Finnish sauna ;-).

In harborside Helsinki, I found a design-conscious town studded with Art Nouveau buildings, glass shopping malls and green spaces filled with skateboarders. Although not actually geographically part of Scandinavia, it's clear this is a Nordic country; the waterside harbor is filled with merchants selling fur wraps, wool mittens and souvenirs that remind you this can be a COLD country.
Helsinki's Kauppatori Market, offering everything from Finnish fare and trinkets to seasonal produce
Temppeliauko Church, hewn from solid stone
After dining on reindeer meatballs and seasonal berries in waterside Kauppatori, I walked along upscale Eteläesplanadi to legendary Finnish design shops, e.g. Marimekko; Tuomiokirkko, the neoclassical Lutheran Cathedral that rules Senate Square; and Temppeliauko Kirkko, Helsinki's copper-clad church built into solid stone that resonates with acoustic splendor.

Russian Romp 
St. Petersburg's Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage

St. Petersburg's Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
An overnight ferry, aka Finnish-Russian Party Boat, took me to St. Petersburg, land of the tsars, where gilded palaces filled with treasures (and tourists) sit beside groovy bars and American fast-food joints.

Much of what's left of the former empire is split between the Russian Museum in Mikhailovsky Palace and Hermitage, headquartered in the Winter Palace, a lime sherbet-colored Baroque structure that sits regally on Palace Square, guarded by the stately column commemorating Alexander I's 1812 victory over Napoleon.

Lacking ample time on my Visa-free visit to explore collections inside Russia's famed 18th- + 19th-century landmarks, I used what I had to stroll down famed Nevsky Prospekt, across the Moyka River, past the enormous Catherine the Great statue and Aleksandrinksy Theatre, where Chekhov's The Seagull premiered in 1896.
Western tastes have come to town.

I visited the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, the onion-domed dazzler where Aleander II was assassinated in 1881. Then it was back to the boat for another bad karaoke party and overnight trip back to Helsinki. From the harbor, I caught another ferry heading directly to tiny Tallinn, where folks party all weekend. Stay tuned!
Nevsky Prospekt, Russia's most famous street
See the next chapters in my Scandinavian sojourn at Snapshot Scandinavia, Part II: Tallinn to Stockholm
and Not-to-Believe Norway.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rainbow Nation Ramble: South Africa by Bike

Once a declining dock area, Cape Town's
Victory and Alfred Waterfront
is now a tourist mecca.
You can count on Doug Lofland and Bike Beyond Boundaries to deliver culturally enriching, thoughtfully-planned cycling tours that put you smack dab in the middle of a foreign culture. Our May 2011 adventure encompassed two new itineraries in "The Rainbow Nation," a land with 11 official languages that's been called "the whole world in one country."

Iconic Table Mountain shelters
Cape Town's Company's Garden.

On both, we experienced dramatic coastlines, vibrant cities, cultural diversity, abundant wildlife and sensational braais (BBQs) starring grilled delicacies cooked over open flames.

Cape Town Caper
Stunning Chapman's Peak Drive
links Hout Bay with Noordoek.

Jackass (African) Penguins
at Boulders Beach
Our two-wheeled escapade took us up Chapman's Peak Drive, a coastal stretch rivaling Big Sur for scenery and hair-pin curves. Watching for foraging baboons, we rode to a Jackass (African) Penguin colony at Boulders Beach, past multi-million-rand mansions of Leo de Caprio, David Beckham, George Clooney and other Hollywood A-listers (plus a handful of "buppies," South Africa's newly moneyed black professionals) draped on Table Mountain hillsides. In nearby Imizamo Yethu Township, children's smiles begged the question: Is having less really having more?

Robben Island Prison, where
Nelson Mandela spent 18 year
The depth of commitment to a free nation was evident at Robben Island, where a former inmate led us to cells where Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress (ANC) activists were incarcerated. We imbibed at Constantia Valley Winelands, oldest wine-making region in the Southern Hemisphere, and saw the diversity of South African flora at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and world's first botanic garden devoted to a country's indigenous flora.

Constantia Valley Winelands is the
Southern Hemisphere's oldest wine-making 
region, with vines planted in 1685.
Highlights: The serene Makuti Lodge in Hout Bay, Jikeleza Dance Project (where township kids learn self-expression, confidence and team spirit), fine reds at Groote Constantia

Best bargain: Long Street Backpackers in Cape Town, a great place to meet fellow travelers

Watch out for: Street beggers, pickpockets, credit card scammers

Riding with the Rhinos

Thatched rondawals at the Savannah
Wildlife Preserve feature electricity
and full baths.
A one-hour flight from the Mother City took us to Jo'burg, where Bobby Hartslief and his crew met us at Tambo Internat'l Airport for transport to the Savannah Wildlife Preserve in Parys, a 90-minute drive.

Clutching his hand, half-blind in the moonlit night, I followed Bobby to my thatched rondawal, a space roughly the size of a three-star American hotel room, with a queen-size bed and full bath, to begin my "glamping" (luxury camping) adventure. At dawn, I brewed tea and watched rhinos, zebras and kudus gather for a morning pow-wow at a watering hole ringed by Acacia trees.

Glamping, aka Luxury Camping

Rhinos "think" with olfactory
passages larger than their brain
If you're a nature-lover indifferent about self-sufficiency in the wild, glamping is for you. With no Boy Scout skills, I connected with Earth's creatures without sacrificing creature comforts, e.g., electricity, hot showers, cable TV (viewable in the main lodge) and WiFi.
Waking to the sun rising over the Vaal River and the birdsong of 300+ species, I roamed the preserve with other "pioneers" via bike, foot and jeep, encountering buffaloes, jackals, elands, nyalas, duikers and
Earth's fastest endangered cat, the cheetah.
25 mammal species roam
Savannah Wildlife Preserve

In addition to the guest retreat, Hartslief,
a charismatic South African whose career as a game conservationist follows one as a NASCAR driver, operates Savannah Cheetah Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting Africa's indigenous wildlife and increasing the population of cheetahs in the wild. Every Bike Beyond Boundaries tour includes a donation.

Will her future extend
beyond Tumahole?
Tumahole Township

Wearing ANC T-shirts, we rode through Tumahole Township, outpost of blacks still living in mud shacks on unpaved streets. Having never welcomed American white folk to their community, school kids greet us with joy and curiosity. One grabs my sunnies and strikes a pose, Madonna-like; another strokes my fine Caucasion hairso different from his own dark fuzz. With no recollection of Apartheid, they have hope beyond the township.

2012 Cycling Safaris
Space still remains for February/March departures of Bike Beautiful Cape Town/Cape Winelands and South African Biking Safari/Savannah Game Preserve. To reserve your spot, call 719.471.0222 or 800.487.1136. Or email

Friday, December 9, 2011

Around the World in a Single Blog, Part I

"Minds are like parachutes.
They only function when they are open."

~Sir James Dewar, Scientist (1877-1925)
2011 Thailand Writers Retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand
I'm no stranger to airplanes. By my best count, I've been on 14 this year, starting with a 17+-hour KLM jaunt from Arctic-like Amsterdam to sun-baked Bangkok on New Year's Day 2011. 

After that, I could hardly stop moving. Rather than settle down in frigid North Europe to write the memoir I started at Wendy Goldman Rohm's inspired Thailand Writers Retreat in Chiang Mai, I flew off to California in February for the Bicycle Club of Irvine Banquet and daunting task of cleaning out my Sunset Beach studio. You'd be amazed how many tschotskes, love letters and can't-part-with miscellany a girl can collect in 29 years!

With Brooke in A'dam
March brought sunshine (and Brooke) to Amsterdam and there was no reason to leave town during glorious tulip season. By May, I was off to South Africa to ride with the rhinos—a feat that cost me three front teeth after a freak accident on the Savannah Wildlife Preserve. Humbled, I flew home toothless from Johannesburg and licked my wounds (and gums) for a few months.

Man meets beast on the Savannah Wildlife Preserve
By October, I had something to smile about: Biking Through the Legends of Colonial Villages based at stunning Hacienda las Trancas in colonial Mexico. Lovingly restored by a North Carolina couple who gave new meaning to "early retirement" when they purchased the 450-year-old presidio in 2003 (after googling "haciendas for sale"), the once crumbling property now resembles one of Mexico's great castles. Visit over Presidents Day Weekend 2012 and enjoy exclusive use of the premises!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Nature's Miracle at the Top of Italy

Balcony view: Lagació Mountain Residence, Alta Badia

"Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else." — Lawrence Block
My eyes were open but could I still be dreaming? Shuffling sleepy-eyed onto my balcony at lovely Lagació Mountain Residence in Alta Badia, armed with a cup of steaming latte, I found an electric-green carpet spread before me. Plush with pines and dotted with medieval churches and tiny rifugi (mountain huts) clustered in fairytale villages, it was something out of a Disney flick—Pinocchio meets The Sound of Music—or a postcard from a tiny alpine hamlet. The crystalline air slipped down my lungs like cool refreshment as I wondered at snow-laced vertical reefs glowing pink and golden in the morning light.

Lagació Mountain Residence
Legendary Olympic town
Cortina d'Ampezzo
I'd come to the Monti Pallidi, the Pale Mountains  as they were originally called after the limestone like-rock that forms their spires, for outdoor adventure and respite from the hubbub of international capitals. What I found was a pristine mountain playground and 2009 UNESCO World Heritage site that hides secrets for those fortunate enough to visit.

Giro d'Italia, May 2010
Agustina Lagos Marmol,
Dolomite Mountains founder
Dolomites Tip 1: Find a reputable company, e.g. Dolomite Mountains, to custom-tailor your trip based on interests, fitness, budget and time. Whether you're a foodie craving rich venison and soft polenta at a Michelin-star restaurant, an athlete stalking bragging rights for climbing a via ferrata (iron path, one of the man-made narrow climbing routes between Italy and Austria used to navigate this treacherous borderland during World War I) or someone just lusting after alpine serenity, you'll find it in a melting pot of Tyrolean, Ladin and Italian cultures. A knowledgeable guide will help you choose from infinite possibilities while getting the best value for your time and money.

A culturally diverse landscape
encompasses Italian Gothic towers
and Tyrolean steeples
Dolomites Tip 2: Pick a season that suits your interests. With their network of trails and scenic passes, The Dolomites draw hikers, climbers and cyclists in spring and summer, when pink rhododendron and creamy edelweiss dress the mountains. In colder months, when snow blankets jagged peaks and roaring fireplaces warm welcoming hostelries, skiers and snowboarders descend, drawn by more than 5,000 vertical feet of ideal ski terrain and miles of back-country trails.

Regional specialties are served in local
inns and Michelin-star restaurants.
Dolomites Tip 3: Discover ancient Ladin (pronounced lah-deen) traditions, reflected in a language, cuisine and culture unique to the Dolomites. Locals speak Ladin, a language descended from Latin, preserved by isolation and protected by nationalistic pride. The culturally diverse landscape encompasses Italian Gothic towers, onion-domed Tyrolean steeples and signs written in Ladin, German and Italian. Local gastronomy includes such specialties as game marinated in wine and juniper, canederli (dumplings made with salami, served with a rich sauce), turtres (spinach pancakes), strudel da pom (apple strudel) and speck, the flavorful cured, smoked ham often served with indigenous cheeses and a glass of local Teroldego or Marzemino red. Prost!

Please vote for my iExplore entry about The Dolomites!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Seductive Spring

Lovely Claire @ Rokerij on Elansgracht;
does she want a kiss or a tip?
Spring in bloom on my terrace
Spring is surely a woman, for she is flirtatious, seductive and capricious in A'dam. When I returned to my new hometown in March, she was flitting about, here one day, gone the next. This, of course, makes her more desirable when she comes around. Like Shakespeare's Hal, who tells his drunken pal Falstaff how he'll imitate the sun covered by "base contagious clouds" so people who miss its light will rejoice when it reappears, Nature creates desire through elusiveness:
...being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
—1 Henry IV, I.ii.173–195
Overlooking Prinsengracht
Touring with Brooke
Although this transitional season is neither here nor there, my boxes of clothes, books, recipes, docs and other California treasures were HERE when I returned to my apartment on Groenmarktkade, so I had lots to unpack before my daughter Brooke visited from Chicago. She brought a warm spell with her, inspiring Amsterdammers to shed mittens, scarves and jackets for the first time since last November.

On bright spring days, party boats float down the sparkling canals, people flock to sidewalk cafes and everyone smiles about the end of the long, cold winter. Dutchies love to complain about the weather, but for a few days in March, they had nothing to complain about. My new HTC Android phone (which offers Internet access via a portable WiFi hotspot), tells me today will be partly sunny with a high of 14⁰C/57⁰F, dipping to 44⁰ by dusk, around 21:00.

We still have blustery days when the wind whips my patio lanterns against the windows overlooking Nassaukade Canal and the old merchant

houses seem to tilt a little further to one side or another with every blast. Those are perfect times to stay in for gezellig (cozy) moments with friends like my British pal Gareth or PoPaul from Montreal, who travels the world on a Greenpeace research vessel that docks serendipitously in A'dam.

Keukenhof near Lisse

Tulip season is now in full tilt, with gorgeous blooms spilling out of window boxes and flowers of all hues available for a few euros in shops around town. Although Brooke was early for the blooms, she vows to return to visit Keukenhof near Lisse, where seven million bulbs bloom in neon splendor each spring. For a native California who's never lived with seasons, it's magical to witness the reappearance of colors after months of gray.

Sightseeing via canal boat
On Brooke's visit, we packed in city and canal tours, a pasta soiree in my apartment and a traditional Dutch dinner with 5th floor neighbors Hank and Gary at kitschy Moeder's (Mother's) Cafe on Rozengracht. While Dutch cuisine is far less haute than that of many other cultures, this popular bistro turns slow-cooked comfort food, e.g. traditional stampot (potatoes mashed with carrots, kale or endive, usually served with a smoked sausage and dollop of rich gravy), into delectable fare. 

Victoria and Alfred Wharf
I'll be heading to South Africa on a Beyond Boundaries cycling press tour in May, right after Queensday 2011 (April 30, when A'dam goes berserk in a sea of orange*). South Africa is of special interest to me, not only because I've never visited, but also because it was settled by the Dutch. To solve a labor shortage, Cape Commander Jan van Riebeeck imported slaves from West Africa, Madagascar, India, Ceylon, Malaya and Indonesia in the 17th century, setting the stage for today's racial melting pot.

Gospel music tells stories about
South Africa's troubled past
Our adventure will immerse us in Cape Town's gospel music scene and impoverished townships, created as living areas for non-whites under the old political system of Apartheid, where much of the Mother City's population still lives. We'll visit the Victoria and Alfred Wharf and ride a cable car to cloud-shrouded Table Mountain.

Cape Point
In Table Mountain Nat'l Park, South Africa's floral bounty will welcome us to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, where the original almond hedge boundary for the Dutch outpost still stands. At the Cape of Good Hope, we'll spy on elands and zebras, then snap photos at Africa's most southwesterly point. 

Jackass penguins at Boulders Beach
More photos will follow at Boulders Beach, home to the only penguin colony outside Antarctica. Of course, no visit to Cape Town is complete without a pilgrimage to Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island** or a trip to Constantia Valley Winelands, oldest of South Africa's wine-growing regions.

Savannah Game Preserve
In Johannesburg we'll peddle around the Vaal River to Parys Game Lodge, where we'll sleep in tents on the Savannah Game Preserve, hoping no cheetah or rhino eats us for breakfast. Berry-picking, Zulu dancing, a bonfire BBQ and visits to Jo'burg's Apartheid Museum and flea market will complete our cycling safari.

Savannah Game Preserve, home
of some 27 species
I'll be in Cape Town for several days prior to the press tour and in Jo'burg and environs for two weeks following, hoping to visit Kruger Nat'l Park and other must-see sights. I welcome itinerary suggestions from anyone familiar with South Africa.

I hope you all are enjoying spring as much as I am, wherever you are. Please stay in touch via email, Skype, Facebook and/or landline! 

*Although the Dutch flag is red, white and blue like the American and French flags, orange is the color of the Dutch Royal Family, which hails from Huis van Oranje-Nassau, The House of Orange.

**In 1961, South Africa's most notorious prison was established on Robben Island. Political prisoners of the anti-apartheid movement were kept here together with hardened criminals. The most prominent inmate was Nelson Mandela, who later became the first President of the new democratic South Africa. Here Mandela spent 27 years of his life in a tiny cell of 5 square metres. Today it i s a World Heritage Site, a poignant reminder to the newly democratic South Africa of the price paid for freedom.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Traveling the World with No GPS

“Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going.” —Paul Theroux

At the oldest of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World
I was born with no sense of direction. What I did enter the world with is a whole lot of wanderlust. It was hardly in my DNA; my doting parents were middle-class folks whose idea of foreign travel was a jaunt up the California coast, say from L.A. to San Fran.

My plan to backpack around the Continent midway through my quest for a college degree came as a shock to my father. “If you can afford to go to Europe, you can afford to pay for your college education,” he raved. 

Rather than counter with something like, “No one will believe I went to college if I didn't backpack across one continent or another,” I called on St Augustine. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” I told my dad. He continued to fund my higher education until I earned a degree that led to a career as a travel writer.

Beautiful Budapest
In the decades since that parental debate, I've learned an important distinction. There are two kinds of people in the world: tourists and travelers. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been,” explains Paul Theroux, “Travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

I like to think I´m one of the latter. After all, even without a GPS, what tourist would wind up in New Orleans after boarding a train bound for Mexico? Armed with a boyfriend and $500, I´d headed south in my 20s, clueless we'd wind up in the Big Easy after a dispute in Guatemala landed us in jail. Our best option, after a friend made bail, was to fly due north, to the closest U.S. city, we figured.

And so began my love affair with the world. I lost the boyfriend but remained enthralled with the planet. As in any romance, we've hit some bumpy patches. But like John Steinbeck, who took the pulse of the country he wrote about by driving across it with his French poodle, I realized, “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” Having ditched the road to marital bliss after 23 years of fruitless trekking, I had no delusions about control. So I let the universe—and a few Dutch con men—take over when I set off down a warren of post-divorce trails.

Crazy Bangkok
These journeys have cost me more than a few unanticipated bucks. And a lot of embarrassment. Indeed, those slanty-eyed stares virtually screamed “crazy farang” when I overturned a trash bin in a Bangkok hotel, sending eggshells, food wrappers and Hong Thong whiskey bottle shards across the room. But how else could I prove my innocence to a hotel clerk who tried to convince me I'd consumed mineral water (60 baht), not drinking water (15 baht), from the mini-bar—an attempted 45 baht ($1.50 or 1) heist?

Thai snacks; do they bug you?
While contemplating bins of fried insects in Chaing Mai or haggling over bejeweled camels in Cairo's Khan al Khalili, I swear I heard James Michener whispering in my ear, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” Although I never tasted any of the crunchy arthropods, I did buy a few golden dromedaries.

Overlooking Jerusalem
Hardly the reluctant traveler, I've always wanted to stray far from home, to learn and grow from globetrotting, taking risks and embracing the unknown beyond the land of ubiquitous Starbucks and McDonald’s. I've found plenty of American fast-food joints along the way, but I try to resist their lure until only a big gulp or a giant burger can satisfy my appetite for Yankee fare.

Even with such indulgences, I've lost inches while broadening my world perspective, for independent travel entails a lot of work. And a lot of decisions. You walk a lot and talk a lot. You call on resources you never knew you had. But it all makes you smarter and sharper, even while you're flailing about, trying to communicate with folks who speak Arabic. Or Italian. Anything but English. And engaging in commerce with cents that make no sense in a wallet familiar with American dollars. On such occasions, I remember Henry Miller´s point, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” And hearing things, I might add.

Yup, IAmsterdam!
When I finally landed in a city that made my soul sing, I pulled up my California roots for good and bought an apartment in Amsterdam. Asked why I traded sunny SoCal for a soggy patch on the European continent that might be underwater were it not for Dutch ingenuity, I quiz back, “Have you been outside today? Met any people in this chilly lowland or lost yourself along its twisting canals?”

The real Dam Square
Watching the tourists roll down Damrak in those climate-controlled coaches, I marvel at the comfort they enjoy in their plush seats, taking in the world through giant panes of glass. Escorted by a tour guide who explains, in their native language, what time the bus will depart after their prescribed visit to Anne Frank's hideaway or the stately Rijksmuseum, they hold no scrunched maps or Lonely Planet guides—reminders of confused meanders in search of must-see piazzas or must-have falafel.

Then I return to my computer and gaze at photos posted by a friend who spent three days with me on an “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium``-style romp. “Dam Square,” the caption reads below an image I recognize as A'dam's Central Station. Damn! I love my friend dearly and we had loads of fun when she visited. But now I know how different we are. At least when it comes to travel.